Friday, May 19, 2006

Today marks a milestone in science. British scientists announced analyzing the final sequence of DNA in the Human Genome Project. Paradoxically, of the twenty three pairs of chromosmes in the human body, the last one to be analyzed was Chromosome 1.

LONDON, England (Reuters) -- Scientists have reached a landmark point in one of the world's most important scientific projects by sequencing the last chromosome in the Human Genome, the so-called "book of life".

Chromosome 1 contains nearly twice as many genes as the average chromosome and makes up eight percent of the human genetic code.

It is packed with 3,141 genes and linked to 350 illnesses including cancer, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.

"This achievement effectively closes the book on an important volume of the Human Genome Project," said Dr Simon Gregory who headed the sequencing project at the Sanger Institute in England.

The project was started in 1990 to identify the genes and DNA sequences that provide a blueprint for human beings.

And let's call it what it is: a triumph for publically funded scientific research. Several privately funded ventures set out to do the same thing, but they all were overwhelmed by the size and complexity of the project and came up short.

As I wrote in a post last July entitled, In Defense of Public Funding for Basic Research,

There are those who say that any research worth doing will appeal to private donors or for profit corporations, and so the government should not be in the research business.

Yet, when we think of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of the past century-- the splitting of the atom, landing a man on the moon, the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, all of these were accomplished with the support of government, not of private industry.

That is not to say that private industry doesn't have a role to play in carrying out basic research. Once the private enterprises involved accepted the fact that publically financed institutions (in this case, a group of several government funded research institutions around the world acting in concert) were providing the heavy lifting for the project, a productive partnership developed. Unlike such projects as building an atomic bomb and landing a man on the moon, the immediate profitability of the genome project has generated a lot of support from private industry, primarily in the biomedical field. And that is good. But, as the article on the role of private industry points out:

Substantial public-sector R&D investment often was needed in feasibility demonstrations before such start-up ventures as those by Celera Genomics, Incyte, and Human Genome Sciences could begin. In turn, these companies furnished valuable commercial services that the government could not provide, and the taxes returned by their successes easily repay fundamental public investments.

This makes at least three points: 1) The initial investment before the project was raised to profitability was provided by government (in this case, primarily the British government); 2) private industry does have its place, just not as the driver of the program, and 3) in the long run, this is a win/win situation, and I suspect that over the long term the British and other governments will get a substantial return on their investment as the sales of pharmaceuticals and other technology or information that come from this project produce much in the way of tax revenue.

But the really best argument in favor of public funding, the argument that really hits the ball out of the park here, is that the genome, now completed, is free and accessible to anyone who wants to look at it. Suppose for a moment, that a private company had in fact carried out this project and sequenced the entire genome. Do you suppose they would simply open it up to free inspection, and tell potential competitors, 'Here?' They would have guarded it like Colonel Sanders guarded his secret recipe, and if they let any of it out at all, you can be sure that it would have only been in pieces, and at a hefty price. In the long run, research into applications would be limited only to that company, and to those who they chose to give the information to. And to compound matters, competitors, not willing to allow that situation to continue permanently, would have certainly begun their own DNA sequencing project. So, the same research would probably be done half a dozen, a dozen or even more times, resulting in a tremendous waste of academic resources. But now, none of them will have to do that, they can go to the public database of the project, and go get anything and everything they want either for free or for a nominal fee.

I respect the ability of private industry to conduct research into those areas that immediately benefit them, but for a project of this magnitude and scope, public financing is still the best avenue to take, and one which today celebrated an enormous achievement.

Cross posted at Deep Thought and Coalition for a Republican Free America.

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